New Eastern Europe
4 (IX) / 2013
Over the last 20 years in Poland, a new type of creation, distribution and perception of information has been shaped. Along with the transition of communication into the world of new media, this process continues to strengthen. Research shows that Poles trust their peers in their social networks and the opinions of “people like me”, more than the opinions of professionals with scientific achievements.
The image of journalists waiting with cameras and microphones for the end of the weekly meeting of the government or the coalition’s consultations in the office of the Polish prime minister belongs in the past. Limousines containing politicians take off with the squeal of tires, without even stopping for journalists. The days are long gone when TV, radio and press journalists waited in front of the government’s headquarters and politicians had no choice but to stop and answer their questions, speaking slowly for everyone to understand and write everything down so that nothing was lost in translation. There is no such need today. In fact, politicians don’t really need journalists.
What’s the purpose of a press conference held by the spokesman of the Polish government after his consultation with the prime minister? Who needs a press briefing after the heads of governments and European commissioners in Brussels reach an agreement at an economic summit, when absolutely everything has already been reported by the participants themselves – through their smartphones and tablets? They tweet not only about the details of the agreement, but also about the atmosphere of the meeting, giving its flavour, stories, emotions, mood and pictures.
Buried in the past
What are journalists and press conferences for? For reporters to ask questions? No. This world is buried in the past. Political communication is directed by new rules now. Journalists from the traditional media and traditional press conferences have ceased to be the centre of the creation of public opinion. And all the participants in the public sphere have only started to realise this gradually.
Firstly, virtually all of the most important political players in Poland are now on Twitter. When I started to promote this tool among Polish political elites three years ago, I anticipated that it could quickly become popular, just like in France; and I saw how my French political consultant colleagues were using it (they, in turn, were fascinated by this tool thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Barack Obama, when Twitter was presented to French president). The scale of the success of this tool in Poland has completely exceeded my expectations.
Interactions of Polish opinion leaders on Twitter are quite fascinating. Politicians are available around the clock, seven days a week. They interact, they answer questions. You don’t need a press pass on Twitter for the prime minister to answer your question, which is often answered within minutes of it being asked. Of course, only if it’s done in an appropriate way. Despite the limit of 140 characters, the answer is full and essential. It can be forwarded on Twitter, or quoted in press materials. What’s important to note here is that journalists are now on equal ground with other members of the new media world.
Secondly, journalists and press conferences are no longer needed because politicians have learned relatively quickly how to answer questions in a way that allows them to continue to tell their own stories, regardless of the question; and of course, they thrill us with fascinating stories. This is the theory of narrative marketing, which takes into account the specificity of the human brain. In the simplest terms: information presented in a narrative form is the most easiest to assimilate. This is particularly important in a world of growing hype, messages, data and quantities of information which we are not able to process. Readers or viewers aren’t able to remember what question was asked by a journalist if a politician is able to present an interesting response in a narrative form. With the narrative, a politician will impose his or her story for a period of several days. Only then do they hold a press conference. Journalists are unable to “push” politicians for their questions to be answered, because they usually receive these questions from their editors or publisher via SMS just before the press conference. Indeed, they are very often unable to understand what they ask, let alone “push” for answers.
Thirdly, journalists investigating the truth, balancing reasons, synthesising points of view, journalists who are fair and maximally objective, are not needed any more. Times have changed. In the field of political communication we have moved from the era of 19th-century essays on duty and raison d’etat to the 21st century post-political thrilling narratives and short forms: comics, flashes, mobilising blog posts. There is no space for anything else, at least on a mass scale. There is no space any more for the recipients of mass information, the potential voters, who are overwhelmed by information, its scale, the size, its disorder and finally the fiction of acquired news. This news becomes outdated extremely quickly. It doesn’t serve the purpose of broadening the knowledge base, but rather stimulates the recipients to keep them in a state of constant excitement. Thus, a recipient should rather be reconfigured to behave like the fan of a football club, shouting simple slogans and encouraging others to become fans like himself. Objective journalism showing the greyscale, providing awareness that the world is not black and white, is no longer valued.
Due to the crisis in the media, only a handful of journalists will survive. I call them “information siris”. They organise the world of information, events and bytes floating around, telling us the world of the future; they will construct the everyday narratives. Today, the list of these information siris is being shaped. It will not be a long list, only a few names, maybe a dozen. In the world of junk content, worthless information and opinions on the web, they attract attention with their brilliant opinions. They create their own churches, gather followers, viewers, listeners and readers and become the point of reference. The masses will refer, however, not to the companies they represent, the organisations they work for or the places they work or perform, but to their names. Their media will be personalised. They will be the media.
This is why they will be our information siris. While creating their groups of recipients, their churches, they should express their opinions clearly, their voices should sound like a bell. Today, we still call them journalists, because we are used to it. But tomorrow? Anyone can become an information siri in the world of new media – an actor, a politician, an athlete, a blogger, an analyst, a doctor, a lawyer or even a taxi driver. Anyone who is able to excite us and draw us into his or her circle. Today, you don’t have to invest in expensive equipment, printers or television studios. There is no need for a broadcasting centre, an editorial office with typesetting and printing – this can now all be placed in the pocket. It is in the smartphone. The information siri will not need anyone’s approval in order to create and broadcast information. Nobody is going to censor his or her work.
Perhaps a good politician should simply take over the tasks of today’s journalists, columnists, and opinion makers. He or she should become an information siri, build his or her own church and gather followers. After all, politicians already know that they must be as close to their voters as possible, guide them directly in the era of a twilight of intermediaries. Politicians no longer need “translators” to explain their thoughts. After all, not so long ago the performances of politicians and party congresses lasted two hours. So they needed someone to explain to people, which part was most important. Thus, journalists, editors, experts, political scientists and sociologists explained the wise things that were said by a politician. When something was not said, they often added it themselves. Thus, a politician was often a hostage to the media and business groups, unable to communicate with voters without these intermediaries. It was quite common in this part of Europe after 1989 when media businesses, which were started by entrepreneurs, tried to force government policies.
This is now over. Instead of waiting for a journalist to call and ask a question, politicians are aware of the fact that they are no longer dependent on the media for public communication. They know that they must be active, that it is worth producing their own content, dictate stories, talk about what they want to say, and not about what they are asked. It is difficult, but possible. Politicians also know that thanks to information, opinions and their own content, they are able to create and maintain a large number of fans – their personal churches – in a state of readiness; generating 2.7 billion (!) recommendation “likes” on Facebook, five billion “+1”s on Google+ and 200 million tweets every day. The networked activists multiply relationships, select and amplify information and later set the tone of public discourse. It is them who judge the winner of an electoral debate within 45 seconds. They indicate a winner before the experts even start talking in the TV studios. Working with them is another level of political marketing.
Today, politicians who want to win must be creators of their own information content. They must fill the gap left by the declining journalism. They should be able to dictate their stories without dependence on the channels of communication. They should create their own channels of distribution of information. Information distributed by them should transform recipients into fans, supporters, promoters of their ideas and their policies – even if it is presented only in the form of a comic book, sentences, short passages or tweets. They should be the information siris.
The most successful political communicator in the post-communist countries of Central Europe has been Radosław Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister. Sikorski has created his own de facto newspaper with a circulation much higher than any print newspaper publisher could achieve. Radek Sikorski’s “newspaper” – his Twitter account – is currently followed by nearly 160,000 people; and this number is constantly growing. Compare this to how many people buy the most recognised newspapers in Poland (apart from subscriptions which are usually done by institutions): Gazeta Wyborcza – 153,365 Gazeta Polska Codziennie – 30,579; Rzeczpospolita – 15,413; Dziennik Gazeta Prawna – 15,041; Puls Biznesu – 2,083; and Parkiet – 1,697 (data from the Polish Association of Press Distribution Control from November 2012).
How has Radosław Sikorski achieved this? The fact that he is a minister of state is perhaps not the most important thing. After all, most ministers never dream of this amount of influence. Perhaps more important is that he used to be a journalist and thus is able to weigh words, to saturate a maximally simplified, short and thrilling message. More important than his journalistic background, however, is that Sikorski has created his own newspaper, his own medium. He has built his own channel of communication, a tool to impose his own stories and recommendations on the world, to promote information and opinions from all over the world that are, in his view, the most interesting. And this has been achieved, for the most part, due to his personal skills.
Sikorski’s “newspaper” is free. He didn’t have to take out any loans or apply for a license to start it. He doesn’t need a printing office, paper, photo editing, corrections, distribution, marketing, an editorial team or three floors of office space. He just takes his phone out of his pocket and writes his message, using a free application. Sikorki’s “newspaper” is free for him and his readers. Nobody has to pay for it.
Radosław Sikorski was one of the first to ask himself the question of whether it makes sense to invest in communication via journalists, in advertising in the daily press, if people are already somewhere else, and someone else leads them? The world of information has become scattered. This state is probably temporary, and will last until new ways of formatting, distributing information and influencing public opinion are found. As a population, we don’t have the same background, the same supply of information any more. In Poland 20 years ago, such a background was provided every day at 7.30 pm when the main political TV programme Wiadomości was transmitted into every household, strongly influencing electoral decisions. It was the time when the majority of the population possessed a similar load of information.
Over the last 20 years, however, a new type of creation, distribution and perception of information has been shaped. Along with the transition of communication into the world of new media (and not just among a young audience), this process has been additionally strengthened. Solid research shows that Poles believe their peers, and thus, their “friends”, who are more or less real and who are in their social networks. Opinions of “people like me” are more important to them than opinions of professionals with scientific achievements. Furthermore, these opinions are stronger than conventional technologies in influencing their decisions.
So, how to become a “friend” in the world of new media, one who will be followed into fire? What is the role of a politician in a world without journalists, or at least – which no one has a doubt about nowadays – in the world of declining media understood in the traditional way? Who should tell people about the world, select information, identify trends, tendencies and shape them, lead people by proposing ideological, legislative and electoral solutions? Who will become an information siri? Perhaps someone who is simply well-educated?
But also, where is the place for traditional democratic mechanisms in a world of increasing social problems, growing unemployment among young people (which has reached the critical level of 50 per cent in many European countries), in a world of easiness to generate, disseminate and assimilate simple recipes and solutions, where there is “sparking communication” and these sparks of strong narratives are able to reach the entire population in just a few hours, where the role of the media is declining and “intellectual aristocracy” is being pushed to the margins?
Eryk Mistewicz is a political consultant who works with opinion leaders in Poland and France. He is the editor in chief of the Polish quarterly magazine Nowe Media (New Media), and the author of several books including Anatomia władzy (Anatomy of Power) and Marketing narracyjny (Narrative Marketing). Translated by Igor Lyubashenko.